The Broncos are one season away from obscurity
A 2018/19 season preview
Losing has always been a tough pill to swallow for the Denver Broncos. The Broncos faithful have had to endure three losing seasons since the onset of the new millennium.
The 5-11 record in the 2016/17 regular season—coming only two years removed from their third Super Bowl title—showed just how far a team can fall without an effective starting quarterback. The three-headed quarterback disaster of Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, and Paxton Lynch drove an already anemic offense into the ground.
The lack of offense put more pressure on the talented defense, leading to uncharacteristically uneven performances, including allowing 51 points against the Philadelphia Eagles, 41 against the New England Patriots, and embarrassingly 35 against the lowly Miami Dolphins.
The jury is still out for head coach Vance Joseph, who was dangerously close to losing his job. After a disastrous debut season, John Elway considered firing Joseph, according to ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter—he figures to be on a paper-thin leash at this point.
Broncos icon Elway will also be under the microscope this season after struggling immensely in the draft, most notably with recent first-round catastrophe Lynch. While Elway may be the biggest star in Broncos history, and arguably one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, his new gig as Executive Vice President of Operations and General Manager hasn’t turned out as kindly. He needs to turn the ship around quickly or his good graces will rapidly run out in Denver.
Elway’s first priority in the offseason was finding a starting-caliber quarterback, something he’s failed to achieve since Peyton Manning’s retirement. The good news is none of last season’s failed QB triumvirate will start opening night for the Broncos in 2018. Siemian is getting another chance with a backup gig for the Minnesota Vikings; Osweiler is playing for his NFL career in Miami; while Lynch did not even make the Broncos opening day roster. This is after dropping in the depth chart to third string quarterback, behind former seventh rounder Chad Kelly, and being subsequently cut at the end of the preseason. The bad news is that Elway’s replacement isn’t exactly inspiring either.
After withdrawing from the expensive Kirk Cousins sweepstakes, the Broncos settled on veteran quarterback Case Keenum, signing him to a two-year, $36 million deal. The journeyman QB is coming off undoubtedly the best season of his career, where he was able to produce moments of magic in Minnesota all the way to the NFC Championship game. Elway is banking on Keenum’s 2017 form not being an anomaly.
Yet again, the preseason quarterback battle has drawn more attention for a seventh rounder than the presumed starter. Chad Kelly, the nephew of Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, is more than outliving his “Mr. Irrelevant” monicker—the name bestowed to the last pick of the draft. Kelly has bounced back from a redshirt rookie year, where he was sidelined the entire season due to a torn ACL. His solid performances in the preseason have drawn the attention of Elway. “I had a feeling he was going to play well. He’s a competitive guy… he’s got good instincts,” Elway said during a preseason press conference.
While Kelly may have cemented his place as the backup, after easily leapfrogging Lynch, it’s unlikely he’ll get a shot at the starting spot. However, if Keenum struggles early, there may be whispers of Kelly’s name within the stands.
Unfortunately for Keenum, he’ll be leaving a team with a relatively stable offensive line, and moving to one which allowed 52 sacks last season, third highest in the NFL.
Despite being an area of focus in the offseason, the Broncos made few alterations to one of the worst offensive lines in football last year. The only additions to the line being veteran right tackle Jared Veldheer, who was acquired from the Arizona Cardinals for a 2018 sixth-round pick, and sixth-round offensive guard Sam Jones.
Veldheer is a clear upgrade over last year’s starters, Menelik Watson and Donald Stephenson, but the 31-year-old tackle is coming off a season-ending ankle injury, while Jones figures to only serve as a reserve for 2018. Even with the additions of exciting young weapons, Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, Royce Freeman, and the return of talented tight end Jake Butt, the offense will live and die by the strength of that o-line.
By failing to bring significant changes to the offense yet again, the bulk of the responsibility will fall on the defense, but they have more than enough talent to carry the team. The selection of Bradley Chubb—the best defensive player in the draft, who surprisingly slipped to Denver at the #5 selection—easily eclipsed any news coming out of Denver’s camp. The bull-rushing phenom, paired across from superstar linebacker Von Miller, has the potential to terrorize backfields, bearing a striking resemblance to the Miller/DeMarcus Ware combo—it certainly helps to have Ware mentoring the young man in his new role as pass rushing consultant.
A menacing pass-rushing rotation consisting of Miller, Chubb, Shaq Barrett, and Shane Ray should be enough to mask the changes to the secondary personnel. Cornerback Bradley Roby will attempt to transition to a larger role from the slot position after brash lockdown corner, Aqib Talib, was shipped off to Hollywood. In addition, veteran corners Tramaine Brock and “Pacman” Adam Jones were added in free agency to add depth to a suddenly underwhelming backend of the secondary rotation, which is filled out by untested young corners Isaac Yiadom and Brendan Langley.
The Broncos also acquired safety Su’a Cravens in a trade with Washington. Cravens showed his potential in 11 games as a rookie in the 2016 season, but concussions and family issues lead him to the brink of retirement.
After last year’s daunting schedule, the Broncos have the fifth easiest strength of schedule, with teams that had a combined 2017 record of 122-134. The only playoff teams that the Broncos will face are the Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Los Angeles Rams.
The team will have matchups against three teams that finished in the bottom four of the AFC last season, including the oft-horrible Cleveland Browns and New York Jets.
The Broncos will also benefit from playing in a division in transition. The Chiefs will be starting a new era under a new starting quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, the Raiders with a new head coach, John Gruden, while the Chargers are trying to sustain a season without significant injuries.
The addition of young weapons is enough to drum up a slimmer of hope, but this is a familiar narrative for the Broncos. The defense will likely carry an offense that has yet to find their identity, but the difference between a successful season and a failed one is marginal, and their championship window fades by the minute.